Bernie Ecclestone has had the hauntingly echoing theme tune from The Good,the Bad and the Ugly as the ringtone on his mobile phone for some years now. Ennio Morricones score for the classic 1960s Italian Spaghetti Western is just right for F1s stonefaced Little Big Man and his endless quest for a few dollars more.
Ecclestone softly spoken but with the cold glint of determination in his eye has called the shots and cracked the whip in the glamour sport for decades,making himself and his family billions along the way as well as a reputation as one of the most extraordinary deal makers in any walk of life. Feted by some as a force for good and hated by others for much that is bad about modern F1,majority owned by CVC Capital Partners,Ecclestone has never shied away from controversy even when things turn ugly.
His presence at this weekends Bahrain GP,a controversial race proceeding against a backdrop of rights protests and the distant whiff of teargas and petrol bombs as local youths and anti-government activists clash with police,has cast him centre stage once again. The provocative assertion that the teams are all happy to be there,and that everything is quiet in the troubled kingdom,have caused his picture to be burned in some of the more restive quarters of Manama. I can assure you that I am not happy,my family is not happy, Khadija al-Mousawi,whose jailed rights activist husband Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has been on hunger strike for more than two months,told Reuters on Wednesday.
Small in stature,the son of a North Sea trawlerman has always thought big. Even his critics recognise that his vision has transformed the sport from a world of gentleman racers and oily-overalled garagistes chasing comparative pittances in prize money into a multi billion dollar enterprise.
In those dim and distant days,Ecclestone would even collect the cash in a bag and walk it to the nearest bank. Now,CVC are planning a roughly $1.5 billion public listing of part of the business in Singapore. Known simply as Bernie,or just the Mr E written on the car pass that allows his sleek Mercedes limousine access to the F1 paddock inner sanctum,the 81-year-old British billionaire is rarely out of the news.
To the Bahrain royal family,and rulers elsewhere,the bespectacled mop-topped Andy Warhol-lookalike in pressed blue jeans and starched white shirt is to be admired as the man who has stood firm despite a wave of global opposition. If Bernie shakes on a deal,he delivers.
In the last decade Ecclestone has taken F1 to lucrative new markets in Abu Dhabi,Bahrain,China,India,South Korea and Singapore at the expense of old and traditional venues in Europe. Russia will make a debut in 2014 when the United States is also due to have two races.
The money has come rolling in,multiplied by amazing deals that have seen him sell Formula One several times over while retaining effective control. In 1997 it was revealed that Ecclestone had given Britains then-ruling Labour Party a one million pound donation before F1 was granted exemption from a proposed ban on tobacco sponsorship. In a double bonus,Labour gave him his money back. As he quipped when he turned 80: Retire? Why? I need the money,I cant afford to retire.